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Amid Hamptons Mansions, East End Fishermen Beat On Against the Tide 1
The costs and rewards are high for commercial fishermen, a way of life constantly under threat. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)

On Gosman’s dock in Montauk, seagulls hovering above, I was greeted by the smells of gasoline and fish as I walked on the worn, white-speckled planks.

The water looked invitingly blue, and a group of fishermen were readying their vessel for a day’s work. 

One of the fishermen and I exchanged nods. A cigarette hung from his lips and he wore heavy work gloves, thick orange waders with suspenders and a greasy baseball cap.

The romanticized life of Montauk fisherman seeped into my head as I watched him unfurl the boat’s netting while water near the boat’s stern started to churn. How great it would be, I thought, for a chance to be a man of the sea. To be a Santiago or an Ishmael or Coleridge’s ancient mariner.

I soon pictured myself swapping stories and finding solace in glasses of whiskey with fellow fisherman at Liar’s Saloon as I walked along the beach of Fort Pond Bay.

I pictured tearful goodbyes with girlfriends on the dock, pockets stuffed with wads of damp dollar bills, stacked cardboard boxes of iced fish, and sunburned and whiskered faces of those returning after a week at sea.

As I sipped a paper cup of coffee in the morning sunlight, the life of working on the sea looked awfully appealing.

Amid Hamptons Mansions, East End Fishermen Beat On Against the Tide 2
The East End’s expansive waters and dramatic skyline are fueling sprawling real estate development. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)

President Biden and other supporters say offshore wind can furnish an efflux of clean electricity and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and construction. The industry also could create up to 1,700 jobs and power 70,000 homes.

But many Montauk fishermen think that South Fork Wind’s installation of 15 massive turbines in the ocean could displace them from their fishing grounds and ruin their industry. Thousands of others are planned up and down the East Coast.

“We really want commercial fishing and wind energy development to coexist because we believe that they can, and that they both can thrive,” Amanda Lefton, who leads the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency charged with permitting projects, told E&E News, an environmental web newsletter.

South Fork Wind is New York’s first offshore wind farm and is on-track to be fully permitted by early 2022. Construction will be underway soon thereafter, according to the company.

Amid Hamptons Mansions, East End Fishermen Beat On Against the Tide 3
Commercial fishermen make an average of $28.98 an hour or about $60,279 a year, according to one career website. That’s a pittance compared to Hamptons billionaires. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)

Construction of the project will require construction ships and barges to enter and congest historic Montauk fishing grounds, which will, in turn, cause difficulties with navigating and an increased risk for collisions, forcing fishermen to use alternative ports or change routes, according to a report.

Many fishermen believe that radar congestion would endanger them during periods of low visibility, and there’s also concern that insurance companies will not cover accidents involving turbines and transmission lines.

Commercial fishermen make an average of $28.98 an hour or about $60,279 a year, according to ziprecruiter.com. That’s a pittance compared to Hamptons billionaires. The median home price is $1.2 million and many oceanfront mansions go for 20-times that.

Amid Hamptons Mansions, East End Fishermen Beat On Against the Tide 4
The allure of the ocean has drawn East Enders into commercial fishing for generations. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)

Even so, a good haul could bring in more than I take home for a week as a teacher standing in front of the chalkboard.

From the late ’70s to the late ’80s, Montauk fishing was a goldmine. Extraordinary numbers of golden tilefish could be pulled from the North Atlantic. Fishermen made money by the boatload and most, if not all, of it was cash. 

Things were financially solid for fishermen before the pandemic, too. The estimated 391 East End commercial fishing operations landed more than 19 million pounds of fish valued at over $27 million in 2019, according to the Long Island Business News.

These revenues generated an additional $47.4 million in economic activity, additional earnings of $15.4 million and 656 additional jobs.

Of course, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. In the last 20 years, the fatality rate of 114 deaths per 100,000 workers far exceeded the overall average of 4 deaths per 100,000 American workers.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks commercial fishermen above lumberjacks (second) and airline pilots (third) as the most dangerous job.

But the romance of the sea is real, and East End commercial fishing has spawn its own literary genre.

“Commercial fishing is all about pushing boundaries,” writes Amanda M. Fairbanks in her recent bestseller “The Lost Boys of Montauk.”

Amid Hamptons Mansions, East End Fishermen Beat On Against the Tide 5
Matt Kindelmann

“It becomes a point of pride, the ability to ignore all indications that your body needs to stop and sleep.”

The book tells the tale of the commercial fishing boat Wind Blown that left Montauk Harbor in March 1984 and fatefully collided with a nor’easter. The boat and the four fishermen aboard her were never found.

The story is a grim reminder that East End fishermen face danger that can be tragic. The loss of Wind Blown is Montauk’s second-worst nautical disaster suffered by a fishing vessel in over a century.

The first was the Pelican, an overcrowded recreational fishing boat that capsized as it made the turn around Montauk Point in 1951. Among the dead: 45 passengers and crew, including her captain. The Pelican’s plight is painstakingly documented in Tom Clavin’s riveting book “Dark Noon.

Going down with a sinking vessel or falling overboard are two most common ways commercial fishermen die, but they must also weather other threats on the East End.

The ebb and flow to fish stocks and regulations, natural disasters, adverse conditions, and even a pandemic can take their toll.

The ocean is both a blessing and a curse for Montauk. While the sea is its quiddity and the crux of its economy, it’s also its burden.

Long Island’s east end commercial fishing industry took a major hit during the COVID pandemic because of the huge dip in demand caused sharply plummeting prices.

Restaurants all over New York were forced to close or operate at limited capacity to protect public health and caused market prices for fish to drop between 60- and 80-percent. Sometimes catches went completely unsold. 

Though the allure of being a commercial fisherman on the East End still occasionally flickers for me, I think I’ll stick to teaching and writing.

I hope fishermen, the government, and mother nature can work harmoniously and East End fishermen stays afloat.

I hope the next generation has some of the salts I sometimes envy. If I ever find myself sitting next to one of them at one of the taverns in Montauk, I’ll be sure to buy him a glass of beer and listen to his tale.

Maybe he’ll tell me he longed to teach high school English; the sea is always bluer on the other side.